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Race Tips

What To Do If You Go Off Course

Oops—you inadvertently went off course at a triathlon. Here's what to do when you realize your mistake and the possible ramifications.

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Oopsyou inadvertently went off course at a triathlon. Here’s what to do when you realize your mistake and the possible ramifications.

It was the biggest race of Jason Weaver’s life, and he was lost.

On the first day of Ultraman Florida 2015, a three-day stage race covering 321.6 miles, Weaver blazed out of the swim leg and hopped on his bike in transition with laser-like focus. A little too much focus, Weaver later admitted:

“I became a little overly aggressive coming out of transition. I had studied the maps multiple times and knew there was an out-and-back by the airport soon after transition. With my head down and admittedly going too hard to start, I blew past that turn and took the next turn off the main road, which was also part of the actual course.”

About 20 miles into the bike ride, Weaver realized he had not seen his crew since leaving transition. With equal parts worry and anger, Weaver assumed his crew had gotten lost and he would not be able to restock fuel for the next section of the bike leg. Suddenly, he had a moment of clarity:

“I was riding through this neighborhood, and started paying attention to the street names. I got my wits about me and remembered on the map that these streets were at about mile 35. I approached a stop sign with this other rider and yelled, ‘Hey man! Did we miss a turn? My Garmin only shows 24 miles. What mile are you at?’ He replied, “I am at mile 35. You missed a turn.”

Weaver had cut the course by approximately 10 miles. His crew had been waiting for him at a designated fuel stop for over an hour, wondering where he was.

Unintentional deviations from the course happen all the time in triathlon, even to pros. At the inaugural Challenge Dubai, Terrenzo Bozzone was penalized four minutes for exiting a roundabout too soon, cutting off a section of the course near the halfway point. During Ironman 70.3 Brazil, Rachel Joyce lost her pursuit of first place when she missed a critical turn on the course, tacking extra miles and time to her bike leg.

Age-group athlete Audra Miller can relate to taking the “scenic route” during a race. At Challenge Atlantic City, Miller added an additional six miles to the iron-distance event:

“I’m still not sure how I got off course, but I remember a group in front of me had turned. I remember thinking it wasn’t correct, but I looked for course markers and didn’t see any, so I followed along. After a bit of time and miles had gone by, the group in front of me was stopped by a couple out for a bike ride and they informed us that we were in fact off-course.”

When these course deviations happen, it’s both an integrity and a safety concern, says Charlie Crawford, Commissioner of Officials for USA Triathlon. As such, athletes and race officials should communicate clearly and honestly about deviations from the course so the rules can be applied fairly.

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“We require participants to cover the prescribed course in its entirety,” says Crawford. “Any violation of that rule shall result in a time penalty, if it was insubstantial and no advantage was gained, or disqualification if the violation was substantial.”

For example, cutting just inside a swim buoy, where the advantage is only a few seconds, would result in a two-minute time penalty on an Olympic-distance course. Significant cuts to the course on the swim, bike or run courses, where the advantage gained is one minute or more, is more likely to result in outright disqualification. To prevent disqualification, the participant would have to return to the same location where he went off course, and resume the race from that point and cover the entire course.

These rules are sometimes malleable to the situation, however. Some events, including ITU and Ironman-branded races, use a different application of the rules. In Weaver’s circumstance, race director Consuela Lively insisted he not return to the point of deviation for safety reasons. Instead, she directed Weaver to a nearby main road with a bike lane, where he safely added 10 miles to his route. He was also given an additional six-minute time penalty, which Weaver felt was “more than fair.”

In Miller’s circumstance, turning around and returning to the last known point on the course allowed her to resume the bike leg (albeit with a slower overall time than planned).

In both these circumstances, the situation was handled appropriately, says Crawford. The head referee at each race holds ultimate discretion on how (or if) an athlete can return to competition after deviating from the course. His guidelines for athletes in similar situations at future races:

  • Athletes should thoroughly review the course prior to race day and ask questions about places that seem confusing.
  • Event organizers should always try to review the course design to ensure athletes can easily follow it, and that any place where it may be confusing should be staffed with course direction monitors.
  • It is required that, should a participant violate this rule by going off course, he or she must report it to the race officials.
  • A participant who realizes he or she has gone off course should try to safely return to the point of departure, realizing that being off course may mean there is no traffic control and safety is the primary responsibility at that point.
  • There can be no adjustment to the total elapsed time due to going off course or any other reason. The total elapsed time plus the penalty equals the official time.

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